A bad week for homeopaths but a great one for the Nightingale Collaboration

The pen is mightier than the sword, unless you’re Jerome Burne, who describes himself as a health journalist, who’s written for most of the national newspapers and a variety of magazines, in recent years mostly for the Daily Mail. Last year he won an award from the Medical Journalists Association. He also co-authored a couple of Patrick Holford’s books and is mysteriously described by Dana Ullman, of all people, as a ‘leading skeptic’. I confess I’d never heard of him until last week but then I don’t usually read the Daily Fail, so what would I know?

Being an award-winning medical journalist and having done all the careful, thorough and objective research that description implies, Jerome Burne will know all about homeopathy. He will know that it is based on fanciful pre-science notions about disease and he will know that most homeopathic products contain no trace of active ingredient. He will know that the homeopaths’ belief that diluting and shaking an ingredient increases ‘potency’ is irrational because it breaks basic laws of physics and chemistry.

He will know that the totality of evidence thus far indicates that homeopathy works no better than placebo and that putting faith in homeopathy can lead to needless tragedy. Oh, hang on a minute…no, it seems he didn’t know that last bit. He actually says of homeopathy,

Even its most virulent critics cannot claim is remotely likely to be harmful

Anyway, given that Jerome Burne should have already known of these tragedies, award-winning medical journalist that he is, it was disconcerting to see on his blog last week, an article entitled, ‘Why hounding homeopaths is both batty and arrogant’, in which he describes homeopathy as something “that might, to some, be mildly irritating”, comparable to “people who misplace apostrophes, wear Croc shoes, do crochet, litter their sentences with ‘you know’ and text using their middle finger.”

I wondered what on earth he had discovered that makes it OK for homeopaths to lure paying customers with the claims that homeopathy prevents pertussis and malaria and everything else under the sun, rendering those of us trying stop homeopaths (and anyone else) making false claims in healthcare advertising, “seriously potty”, in Jerome Burne’s opinion. He concludes,

Ultimately what Nightingale is attacking is the intelligence and judgement of people who are trying to find an effective way to heal themselves.

Alas, no, Jerome Burne hadn’t suddenly got wind of the evidence that would finally persuade the scientific consensus that homeopathy is indeed a “highly effective system of medicine”, as its supporters claim, so I won’t bother revisiting the fantasy of just how wonderful it would be for all of us if only homeopathy worked.

It turns out that the reason “hounding homeopaths is both batty and arrogant” is that there are risks involved with taking pharmaceutical drugs. (Spot the fallacy!) We are not told why the risks involved in taking drugs are more important than the risk of putting faith in homeopathy for life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and cancer because, in spite of being an award-winning medical journalist, it seems that Jerome Burne hadn’t done the minimal research needed to establish that people sometimes make this choice for themselves or for their children, with terrible consequences. So much for “the intelligence and judgement of people who are trying to find an effective way to heal themselves”. (Note I’m giving Jerome the benefit of the doubt here. Either he didn’t know or he doesn’t care. Doesn’t look good for him either way, does it?)

Talking of minimal research, Jerome Burne also writes,

I bring all this up because this week Nightingale was supposed to be protesting outside the Advertising Standards Authority (because they haven’t been diligent in chasing homeopaths for making unsupported claims on web sites) and lobbying Parliament (because “something has to be done”).

We just thought this was funny. Of course, as many commenters beneath Jerome’s article pointed out, it was not Nightingale but the homeopathic group called HMC21 who staged a protest outside the ASA. Here’s a pic showing the dilution of homeopaths that showed up, plus Martin Robbins, who has since posted this excellent report.


HMC21 are a group who, back in 2010, placed an ad promoting homeopathy in a supplement to the New Statesman, which attracted several complaints including one from the Nightingale Collaboration. (Ah! This must be how poor Jerome got so confused). HMC21 have spent the last couple of years wasting a monumental amount of the ASA’s time, fighting for the right to be able to say whatever they like in their advertising, as have the largest professional body for lay homeopaths in the UK, the Society of Homeopaths, whose website was so appalling it was challenged by the ASA directly.

The final adjudications against both the SoH and HMC21 are published today on the ASA website and are covered in the latest Nightingale Collaboration newsletter, which explains that these two adjudications set the standard against which all complaints about homeopathy to the ASA will be judged in future and which calls these landmark rulings “a victory for consumer choice”.

The issue of consumer ‘choice’ is just a common trope. The real issue is simply whether the advertiser can properly substantiate the claims made. And by ensuring advertisers can substantiate the claims they make, consumers are protected from misleading advertising that would otherwise deny them from making a fully informed choice. We want consumers to be allowed to make that informed choice.

Coming only a few days after NHS Lothian announced their decision to stop funding homeopathic treatment, it’s been a great week for us batty and arrogant members of the public, who don’t care to see good money wasted on cultish nonsense.

By the way, in case you don’t know why the Society of Homeopaths who, like HMC21, would presumably have known of the adjudication against them for some weeks before it was published, didn’t join the protest outside the ASA premises, read all about it here and be joyful (or mortified, depending on where you’re coming from).

So, what was the HMC21 protest about? Some of the protesters were happy to tell me. “We think the ASA is a bit biased. We think it has an agenda,” I was told by a charming woman from Conspiraloons R Us. If the folk on Planet Homeopathy are to be believed, there is enough evidence in favour of homeopathy to sink their own spaceship. Why, they’ve got anecdotes dating back 200 years! They’ve got studies based on patient self-assessment!

In the leaflet they were giving out at the protest, they whine that,

The ASA has gone on to endorse the position that the only valid evidence in medicine comes from randomised controlled trials (RCTs), and that evidence from patients’ experience is not valid. This is a central argument of those opposed to homeopathy and other CAM therapies. It has no scientific or medical foundation, and it is dangerous.

There is no part of the above quote that isn’t absolute crap. The argument about RCTs is not that they produce the “only valid evidence in medicine” but that the results of high quality RCTs provide the best evidence we can get about whether a proposed treatment can achieve what it’s supposed to. This is because they minimise the possibility of bias, which the clinical experience and patient self-assessments that homeopaths are so fond of most certainly do not. This would be why the hierarchy of evidence that ranks systematic reviews and meta analyses of RCTs at the top is widely accepted by the scientific community.

I’m only a humanities graduate but even I can grasp this! All homeopaths have to do is come up with a study that convinces the scientific consensus that homeopathy works. In 200 years they haven’t managed to do that. The excuses range from the RCT model being wrong for the homeopathic paradigm (or some such twaddle) or that the multi million dollar industry that is homeopathy can’t afford to finance them. Hogwash!

Speaking of the scientific consensus, I was surprised to see, beneath Jerome Burne’s piece, a comment from William Alderson of HMC21 suggesting that he doesn’t know what is meant by this term.

There is an ALLEGED scientific consensus, but there has never been a study which defines who is included in this and why. Without such a study this is completely and unquestionably anecdotal evidence, both in scientific or judicial terms. A few “authorities” are quoted, but their competence is highly questionable.

For pity’s sake, you don’t need a “study” to define the term – just use a frigging dictionary. Or look it up on wiki.

Scientific consensus is the collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study. Consensus implies general agreement, though not necessarily unanimity.

If the scientific consensus is that homeopathic products are capable of doing what the likes of William Alderson claim they do, it should be very easy for him to show this and HMC21 wouldn’t have had to resort to fallacious appeals to tradition and patient self-assessments in place of robust evidence.

The simple truth is that the evidence supplied by HMC21 did not meet the minimum standard of providing at least the one “adequately controlled experimental human study” very properly required by the ASA, therefore the ASA – whose remit is to protect consumers by ensuring advertising is truthful, not to help those trying to rip us off – had no option but to find against them.

I’ll leave the last word to the supremely articulate and incisive spokeswoman for the Nightingale Collaboration, who responded on Jerome Burne’s blog thus:

Our complaining about adverts may be perceived as an “attack” by those whose living depends on being able to make unsupportable claims about their products and services to the public; similarly, a mugger who is witnessed and reported to the police may also perceive it as an attack on his living. The bottom line is that it is they – not us – who are breaking rules…As ordinary consumers we have no power to influence the research, development, marketing or prescribing of pharmaceutical drugs – but we can challenge misleading claims made in healthcare advertising. Considering that a great many potentially dangerous misleading claims are made in healthcare advertising – well, at least in advertising by CAM practitioners – I am satisfied that campaigning for truthful advertising in healthcare is a worthy cause, however “seriously potty” or a “waste of valuable resources” it seems to anyone else.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. 😉

20 thoughts on “A bad week for homeopaths but a great one for the Nightingale Collaboration”

  1. Sorry I got carried away rubbing their face in it. One of them replied saying she’d removed the medical claims and that SOH had advised them that they’re going to fully comply with the ASA.

  2. For a blog that advertizes itself as a sceptic’s web site your commentary seems very one sided. OK, you don’t like alternative medicines, fair play. But to qualify as a sceptic you would need to be balancing your rants against homeopathy with a few posts on the criminality of the drug companies.

  3. Thank you for your comment, Arthur, but you are mistaken.

    Writing about a subject I know next to nothing about would not qualify me as a sceptic. Skepticism isn’t something one gets qualified in; it is simply an approach to topics based on doubt and inquiry. As this is my blog, I’ll continue to write about things I find interesting, thanks all the same.

    By the way, if you’re interested in the criminality of the drug companies, you might try Ben Goldacre’s book on the subject.

    Love the user name. 🙂

  4. Part of the problem in trying to have any reasoned debate with a homeopath supporter is perhaps best demonstrated by citing a post from the comments on this site

    Christine Jahnig
    The ASA hired an expert to assess the homeopathic literature. That expert is trained only in………..pharmacology.


    I imagine this is the same person commenting on the Pulse Today website in response to their article on the ASA adjudication.

  5. The gloating seen here by those who want to deny patients homeopathic treatment is shameful. None can speak from a position of authority. None can claim that they have ever seen or been treated by a homeopath, are physicians, homeopaths, pharmaceutical chemists or trained in any of the health care science fields. The only thing they are specialized in is disinformation and cyberbullying.

    Those who oppose homeopathy are nothing more than well-funded and highly-organized disinformation operations in full-swing throughout the internet. From forums to comment boards and even professional websites that have only one purpose: Defame, distract, and destroy the truth.

    However organized, the tactics are very predictable in a world filled with lies and half-truths. This, sadly, includes every day news media, one of the worst offenders with respect to being a source of disinformation.

    Source: http://www.realfarmacy.com/25-rules-of-disinformation/

  6. Sandra your repetition of your dogma is rather boring, your fallacious belief someone has to be a certain profession or a homeopath to understand homeopathy is just plain nonsense, I am sure you will keep on repeating it though. And you have no idea what my qualifications are, or if I have ever been treated with homeopathy it is an irrelevance, knowing a study isn’t double blinded, isn’t adequately controlled etc.etc. doesn’t require more that basic intelligence and not being deluded.

    Cyber bullying ? Really… You are the one with a site encouraging people to visit pages you find, comment and leave, you say you and others will follow up. Hilarious…..

    In terms of the article the ASA found the adverts in question, and the tweet to be in breach of UK advertising codes. You may not like that, but it is about truth in advertising. People who want to use homeopathy still can, they just can’t advertise that is has any medical benefit. Simple.

    Personally I would like to see homeopathy banned from use in the NHS. It is clear there is no credible evidence of efficacy, and as the NHS is publicly funded I and many other taxpayers don’t want precious NHS resources wasted on delusion. If people want to pay for their own – fine but don’t mislead people about what results can be expected. What you do in the USA is of course subject to different regulation.

    What evidence can you present I or anyone else who has posted here is well funded with the purpose of arguing against homeopathy? What evidence do you have that we are formally organised? You are the one who looks like a zealot when you make wild unsubstantiated allegations. It seems to me you have to resort to such accusations because you can’t produce credible evidence in support of your beliefs.

    Perhaps you can’t understand some people feel strongly about false advertising, promotion of quackery and the harm that can result. That’s my motivation and guess what, the more nonsense I read from homeopathists the stronger I feel.

  7. Sandra, what is shameful is your callous disregard for the innocent lives that have been lost because their parents were as deluded as you are. What is shameful is your constantly attempting to vilify people who see homeopathy for the nonsense it is and who are fighting those who promote this worthless therapy to line their own pockets.

    Thank you, Erinaceous, for that voice of reason – wasted though it is on Sandra Courtney.

    “the more nonsense I read from homeopathists the stronger I feel.”

    Ditto. You’re doing a great job in rousing the troops against your cult, Sandra. Keep up the good work. 🙂

  8. This is an actual post by me. I never posted any other comment on this site. The supposed comment by me (above) was added by someone who controls this site so that the members here would have a reason to post their childish comments. Not working. Just another example showing the ends to which you will reach to manipulate the truth. Guess this will be deleted. Better take a screen shot.

    1. Sandra, dear, you’re obviously not very well. Don’t worry – I won’t be deleting either of your comments here.

      It is not unknown for commenters who realise they’ve made themselves look nasty and ridiculous to pretend they weren’t responsible for comments they posted earlier. But I’ve never known a commenter try to pass their own comment off as having been posted by the owner of the blog before! I’ve no doubt readers (this blog, like the NC, doesn’t have “members” and has only one writer) will see through this but, if there is any doubt, I’m more than happy to show a screenshot of the back end of the site, which shows that both of your comments come from the same place and use the same email address.

      (You’re behaviour, btw, goes some way in explaining why you believe in the cult of homeopathy.)

      I know you don’t understand the meaning of the word “evidence” but – trust me – you have just handed me the evidence that you are a lying troll, on a plate.

  9. Sandra, that would sound so much more likely* if you hadn’t posted similar comments on Jerome Burne’s blog.

    *It would still sound pretty far fetched.

  10. The similarity between the posts, I.e. conspiracy theories, paranoia, unsubstantiated accusations even very similar sentences, posted and attributed elsewhere to Sandra, make me, erm, sceptical.

    If the latest post attributed to Sandra is another wild accusation, without evidence. Even if we were to believe it, any sympathy she might of had evaporates with the comments about childish remarks. I think the rational amongst us can see some childish if not irrational behaviour. Bizarre.

  11. Sandra – you complain that people writing against homeopathy in the comments section of this blog are somehow unqualified to write about homeopathy because they have never consulted a homeopath or undergone homeopathic treatment. I’ve never jumped out of an aeroplane either with or without a parachute – does that make me unqualified to comment on the stupidity of jumping out of an aeroplane without a parachute? Relying on homeopathy as a genuine form of medical therapy is the equivalent of jumping out of an aeroplane sans parachute.

    I am a supporter of the Nightingale Collaboration and have reported many websites of homeopaths and other quacks to the ASA for making claims of benefit which cannot be supported by scientific evidence. I submitted so many complaints that the ASA asked me to back off while they investigated their “super-complaint”, so I hope I have helped to bring about the investigation by the ASA! Why should homeopaths – or any other group of quacks – be permitted to get away with making claims of benefit that they cannot provide evidence for? Would you be happy with, say, a soap manufacturer making a claim that using their soap could reverse the ageing process for example? I hope you wouldn’t. Stopping people from making such false claims is a major reason for us having consumer protection legislation.

    To paraphrase Carl Sagan, ordinary claims may be made with ordinary proof but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. In case you don’t understand this, I will explain. If I claim to have a pet goat, while you might think it odd there is a reasonable possibility that it could be true and would need little in the way of solid evidence (a photograph, maybe) to support such a claim. On the other hand, if I claimed to have a pet unicorn, I would hope you see that I might have a lot of difficulty in substantiating such a claim. Given the combination of scientific implausibility and lack of credible evidence of benefit for homeopathy, it is fair comment to describe it as utter nonsense. Therefore making claims of benefit for homeopathy fall into the extraordinary category and require extraordinary proof to substantiate. There is not even ordinary proof! I suggest you take a few lessons in understanding what is meant by scientific evidence and the process of evidence based medicine. Try http://www.cebm.net/ as a good place to start. Learn what is meant by the terms placebo effect and regression towards the mean.

    Oh, by the way, I am a qualified physician of 28 years standing. I believe I am therefore sufficiently qualified to say that, given the current evidence base, homeopathy is bunk.

  12. Sandra, if the first comment was not you, how do you explain the similar comments in other places which have the same avatar and name as your other posts there?

    Occam’s Razor indicates that the more likely explanation is that it’s you. You are, after all, not a little crazy, claiming as you do that homeopathy definitely “saved your life” when afflicted by “mercury poisoning” from amalgam fillings.

    Those of us of a more pragmatic bent will generally have no trouble understanding that when a charlatan wants to sell a fake medicine, the easiest thing to cure is a fake condition.

  13. Guy, the expression Mad as a Hatter has its origins in mental aberrations as a result of exposure to mercury doesn’t it?

    Perhaps just for once there is a shred of evidence in an anecdote a homeopath tells? Not good either way.

    There must be another analogy to be drawn about amalgams of myth, anecdote, blind faith etc. leading to mental confusion…

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